Grading the Major Hollywood Studios in the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Era

Posted Thu May 31, 2018 at 01:01 PM PDT by
Leonard Nimoy Laserdisc.png

Can you judge a 4K Blu-ray by its distributor? Let's find out.

We're a long, long way from the days of Leonard Nemoy talking to his beeping pet crystal about laserdiscs! Two full years into the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray format, it's time to score the major studios on their efforts to bring the very best possible video and audio experience to home video enthusiasts. As with any new format, growing pains are inevitable -- it takes time to adjust home entertainment distribution pipelines. However, by the end of 2018, there will be over 400 titles available and that feels like a pretty good litmus sample group to determine the success rate of each studio.

Worth noting: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray is still too new (too niche?) to judge smaller independent studios. While the BBC has made quite a splash with their nature documentaries and Shout! Factory was quick to upgrade their IMAX documentaries to the format, outfits like Criterion, Arrow, and Kino Lorber have yet to make an appearance. Hopefully, time will be on fan's sides as there are a number of great titles we'd be overjoyed to see get beautiful 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and/or streaming releases. 

To determine each studio's success rate as objectively as possible, we're applying a simple point system per category:

Selection -- Total number of discs available
Deep Catalog -- Films made before the year 2000
Video Quality -- HDR10-only vs Dolby Vision/HDR10+ & 2K DI vs 4K DI
Audio Quality -- Dolby Atmos/DTS:X availability vs legacy formats
4K Digital Copies & Streaming -- Do Digital Copies unlock 4K streaming or HD? And, are the studios' movies available to rent or buy in 4K?

5 points per category -- with 5 representing perfection and 0 indicating abject failure -- for a total score out of 25. Here's what we found, ranking the studios from worst to first:

Disney -- 12.5/25

Disney 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Selection: 1/5 (14 titles available or slated for 2018)
Deep Catalogue: 0/5
Video Quality: 4/5
Audio Quality: 3.5/5
4K Digital Copies & Streaming: 4/5

Disney has never been an "early adopter." Since the days of VHS, the Mouse House has been slow to the home video show, but that's largely by design. Nothing quite builds anticipation and demand like withholding it from the public. By the same token, that also fosters high expectations that may not be met. And expectations are high for the studio that owns one of the most in-demand catalogs of kids' films as well as Marvel Studios, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and (very likely) 20th Century Fox's expansive library. 

To Disney's credit, after a slow start, they're committed to 4K and are bringing out the big recent theatrical releases with beautiful transfers with full support for Dolby Vision HDR (in addition to HDR10). However, there have been a few bumps in the road. 

While Disney includes immersive Dolby Atmos audio on their 4K releases, when you listen to movies like Star Wars: The Last JediThor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther, they sound softer and less dynamic that tracks from other studios' tentpole movies. [EDITOR'S NOTE: HDD has officially reached out to Disney three weeks ago to see if there is a specific intent behind their audio-design methodology, and have yet to hear back.] Ultimately, you can crank your audio up to and past reference-level volumes to enjoy these tracks, but many of our readers remain dissatisfied. Disney DVDs and Blu-rays were once go-to demo discs and we'd love to see them return to those days.

We'd also love to see more Disney deep catalog titles. To say there are a few fan favorites (animated or otherwise) deserving the 4K treatment is a bit of a dramatic understatement. That said, Disney has started dipping into newer catalog movies, slating The Incredibles for 4K UHD Blu-ray this June, and The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron rumored for later this summer. Hopefully, we'll be seeing more of their animated and live action movies in 4K.

On the streaming front, their initial run with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 started out rough with only some fans being able to redeem the digital copy in full 4K, but that problem largely ironed itself out when Disney launched Movies Anywhere in collaboration with other major studios. All of the more recent Digital Copies we've unlocked have included access to 4K streaming. That said, Disney films are still not available in 4K on iTunes.

Lionsgate -- 13/25 

Lionsgate 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Selection: 4/5 (58 titles available or slated for 2018 release)
Deep Catalogue: 0/5
Video Quality 3.5/5
Audio Quality 4.5/5
4K Digital Copies: 1/5

Lionsgate was another early supporter of 4K UHD Blu-ray and launched an aggressive volley of fan-favorite releases. They were quick to upgrade their titles with fresh new Dolby Atmos audio tracks and have become a major supporter of Dolby Vision in addition to the HDR10 base WCG. From titles like John Wick to Power Rangers, Lionsgate's selection have been terrific highlights for what the format is capable of. 

While Lionsgate is pretty good about bringing out their heavy hitters to 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray, they're not perfect. A number of releases they could easily showcase here in the U.S. end up being handled by Studio Canal in European markets. Thankfully 4K UHD is a region free format and titles like Early Man can be imported, but that's an extra (and potentially expensive) hassle fans shouldn't have to endure. But, at least they are available and that's what's important. Like for Hell or High Water, late is better than never, but a day and date release would be beneficial for all involved. (BTW, where the heck is the 4K UHD Blu-ray for Wind River?)

Unfortunately, as of right now, their deep catalog is a nonstarter. With the Miramax archive under their control, among other titles, there is a huge selection of great films deserving of a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray upgrade. Rumor has it they're currently prepping the Rambo films for later this year, so it looks like this drought is almost over.

On the streaming front, Lionsgate has been hit and miss. Early titles redeemed in 4K via Vudu, but then those titles were no longer available to stream in 4K and folks who purchased those discs later couldn't redeem them in 4K, so their policy has been a confusing mess. However, in the last couple weeks, fans have noticed that a few titles that would previously redeem only in HDX on providers like Vudu are now opening up in 4K. Hopefully, this trend continues and fans will be able to enjoy their 4K flicks on the go as more and more portable devices start to support HDR and Dolby Vision playback. It would also help matters if they would join Movies Anywhere and allow their streaming copies to be redeemed across all platforms - and in 4K.


20th Century Fox -- 13.5/25

20th Century Fox 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Selection: 4/5 (57 titles available or slated for 2018 release)
Deep Catalogue: 1/5
Video Quality: 3/5
Audio Quality: 4/5
4K Digital Copies & Streaming: 1.5/5

20th Century Fox was an early 4K supporter and has offered up an impressive lineup of new releases and films from the last decade or so. There are more than a few fan favorites in the bunch that showcase the benefits of 2160p, HDR10 with wide color gamut, and Dolby Atmos & DTS:X audio tracks. However, there are a few knocks we have to grade. 

Fist, the deep catalog is a little lackluster with only two titles -- Independence Day and most recently, Die Hard. While these are great releases and we love having them on 4K UHD Blu-ray, we'd love to see some more deep catalog titles like X-Men, Speed, or any of the original Alien films, not to mention big grand spectacle films like The Sound of Music. At least Predator is speculated to arrive around the forthcoming release of The Predator.

Further, while Fox has started producing some native 4K content, many Fox movies are still finished in 2K and then upscaled for 4K theatrical and home video releases. To be clear, native resolution isn't the end-all-be-all when one is dealing with professional-grade masters -- we would argue that color, brightness, & contrast are more important -- but every little bit helps by the time we experience the consumer-grade final product.

We also think it's a shame that Fox has limited itself to HDR10 thus far. 4K with HDR10 is definitely a step up over SDR Blu-rays, but HDR10 can be less consistent across various TVs than Dolby Vision or HDR10+. The good news is that Fox has announced support for HDR10+, although no specific movies have been released with this capability. The bad news is that Fox only releases Dolby Vision movies theatrically.

Lastly, we'd love to see Fox update their Digital Copy policy for the 4K era. While you can buy & rent Fox movies in 4K with HDR in places like iTunes and FandangoNOW, Fox has, thus far, only included HD Digital Copies in its 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray sets. In this regard, they are the worst studio for 4K enthusiasts who enjoy having both 4K physical media and streaming rights.

Paramount -- 19.5/25


Selection 3.5/5 (48 titles available or slated for 2018)
Deep Catalogue: 4/5
Video Quality: 4/5
Audio Quality: 4/5
4K Digital Copies: 4/5

Paramount was slow to jump into 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, but in the last few months, they've ramped up support and are quickly becoming one of our favorite studios (especially impressive after the Saphire Series Blu-ray QC problems from a decade ago). With 48 titles either available or expected for release in 2018, most of their releases include Dolby Vision (in addition to HDR10) as well as Dolby Atmos & DTS:X. If they had as many titles available as Warners or Universal, Paramount could have taken top spot on this list.

In addition to day-and-date new releases, Paramount's deep catalog is shining brightest here. GladiatorBraveheartForrest GumpTomb RaiderGreaseall of the Mission: Impossible films coming in June and with all of the Jack Ryan films due this fall on 4K Ultra HD, Paramount is playing an aggressive and impressive game of catchup with some fan favorites that are turning into must-own releases.

In the video department, in addition to Dolby Vision, the studio has done a terrific job scanning original film elements for true 4K masters (and the results are terrific). That said, and although we see definite improvements over the previous Blu-rays, their newer releases and catalog titles likely come from 2K DIs. Similarly, while some releases -- the impending Mission: Impossible releases -- will retain their original audio mixes, most Paramount movies include new Dolby Atmos and DTS:X offerings that are a joy to experience.

On the streaming side of things, the only thing they could do better is to jump into the Movies Anywhere fold and allow their titles to port over multiple services, but that's only a small complaint considering Paramount Digital Copies unlock 4K streaming rights on providers like Vudu and iTunes.

Sony -- 20.5/25

Sony 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Selection: 4.5/5 (69 titles available or slated for 2018 release)
Deep Catalogue: 4/5
Video Quality: 4/5
Audio Quality: 4.5/5
4K Digital Copies: 3.5/5

With the second-largest selection of titles so far, Sony has not only brought out its big guns with major franchise features like Spider-Man and Men in Black, but they've gone to the deep well for their catalogue releases with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Bridge on the River Kwai in addition to a huge number of films made throughout the 1990s. While they've been comfortable with giving their deep catalog titles the basic HDR10 improvements, they're still highlights of what the format can bring to home video - especially if the title in question was mastered from a restored film negative rather than a 2K Digital Intermediate. 

Additionally, a movie like Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was released in full 4K/60fps as it was shown in some limited theatrical screenings. High Frame Rate was never popular, but it's nice to see a studio attempting to showcase the film in a condition that is as close to the director's original intent as possible.  

On the video front, while Sony tops our list of studios mastering from true 4K sources and they've utilized Dolby Vision for releases like Spider-Man: Homecoming and The Dark Tower, they seem to be very picky-choosey about which titles get the full deployment of Dolby Vision and instead fall back on basic HDR10 as simply being "good enough." Conversely, Sony's audio department is doing a bang-up job, with everything from deep catalog to newer titles, all enjoying good-to-excellent new Dolby Atmos mixes.

As far as streaming support goes, Sony at least offers a 4K streaming option through their own proprietary streaming service supported their own smart TVs, 4K UHD players, and PS4 Pro units. A few titles like the original Jumanji have trickled down to full 4K UHD streaming on Vudu, and even more of their movies are available in 4K via iTunes, but the included Digital Copy codes only unlock HD streaming rights outside the Sony ecosystem. (UPDATE) As some of our readers recently pointed out, some Sony 4K codes that were redeemed through Movies Anywhere like the classic Spider-Man films and The Amazing Spider-Man films are now redeeming with full 4K access. As of right now, we don't know if codes that had already been redeemed will automatically upgrade, but we'll be digging into this and hopefully, we will be able to clarify this point further.

Warner Bros. -- 21.5/25

Warner Bros.

Selection: 4.5/5 (68 titles available or slated for 2018)
Deep Catalogue: 3.5/5
Video Quality: 4/5
Audio Quality: 4.5/5
4K Digital Copies & Streaming: 5/5

Warner Bros. dove into 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray faster and with more gusto than every other studio in town. Each of their releases sports a healthy audio mix, Dolby Atmos or at the very least an improved lossless track, their video transfers are par for the course of better, and with their HBO catalogue, they're the first to bring a television show to 4K Ultra HD with Dolby Vision for their release of Westworld and the upcoming release for Season One of Game of Thrones. They're also big on streaming offering up a massive selection of titles that redeem 4K copies on Vudu with Dolby Vision. They're also one of the few remaining studios to also include, or at least offer through a retailer exclusive, an included 3D Blu-ray copy for releases like Kong and the upcoming release of Ready Player One

While we can't really fault them for their selection, we do have to make note of some odd omissions. Where are The Conjuring films? Or genre films in general? Granted, IT was given a terrific release but, industry-wide, it's difficult to not point out how horror films are virtually being ignored on the format NS Warner Brothers has more than a few fan favorites deserving a due upgrade. Hopefully, that changes soon. 

We'd also love to see Warners be more consistent with their Dolby Vision support (FYI, they've also announced support for HDR10+), but they seem to be doing a better job with dynamic metadata HDR with each passing month (and almost always include it for streaming, even of older catalog titles).

Indeed, Warner Bros. is doing a fine job bringing some great deep catalog titles to the format with excellent releases of Unforgiven, Blade Runner, and The Matrix with an anticipated turn for 2001: A Space Odyssey later this fall. However, the price point is a bit sticky for these big deep catalog releases. The MSRP for these titles skews towards the $40-$45 range with retailers offering little, if any, initial discount, forcing fans who would normally preorder or purchase the title on release day instead are opting to wait for discount options or a random flash sale. 

Universal -- 22/25

Universal Studios 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray

Selection: 5/5 (75 titles available or slated for 2018)
Deep Catalogue: 4/5
Video Quality: 3.5/5
Audio Quality: 4.5/5
4K Digital Copies: 5/5

If you're going to a store or browse online for 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray flicks to purchase, you're going to see a lot of Universal titles. With 75 titles available or in the pipeline for 2018, they're leaving the other major studios behind. While some of their titles could use better masters or full-on restorations, Universal's combination of Dolby Vision HDR grading, Dolby Atmos & DTS:X availability, and consistent 4K Digital Copy support, make them an overall 4K trendsetter.

On top of their technical achievements, Universal has also run an impressive swath of deep catalog titles featuring Apollo 13The Mummy Trilogy, E.T. and most recently the Jurassic Park: 25th Anniversary Collection. Fan favorites, such as The Dear Hunter and The Big Lebowski, are also rumored to be on the way - they're starting to give Paramount a run for their money. Hopefully, we don't have to wait too long for Jaws to make a splash on 4K! 

Like the other studios who finished their films with 2K Digital Intermediates, some of their first offerings didn't immediately showcase an uptick in detail, but their recent releases have shown dramatic improvement. However, one of the common complaints with HDR10 is the simplistic "set and forget it" contrast and black levels, while color can be tweaked a bit high. Thankfully, Universal is opting for more Dolby Vision releases of late. 

Similarly to Lionsgate, Universal are less consistent with their day-and-date 4K offerings, releasing 4K Blu-rays after their standard Blu-ray siblings. Granted, Phantom Thread was worth the month's wait, but we're still sitting on Darkest Hour and a couple other prestige awards-season releases that deserve to be seen under the best circumstances possible. 

Final Thoughts

When looking at the major studios, Universal is leading the pack with a powerful slate of new and deep catalog releases while Warner Brothers, Lionsgate, Sony, and Paramount have made terrific showings with their continued showcase of new releases as well as bringing out the big fan favorites. As much as we'd love to see more from Disney, at least they're on the scorecard and looking to make big strides in the coming months.

Obviously, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray is a relatively new format that is still working out some growing pains. However, it's great to see studios commit to presenting their films to the home video market with the best audio and visual presentations possible. Unlike SDR Blu-ray, 4K UHD hasn't had to deal with a tiresome format war that divided early adopters, pretty much everyone was and remains on the same page with disc specs and the HDR10 standard. While some studios may not be on board with Dolby Vision and are considering the upcoming HDR10+ option as an alternative, as a whole the format is very healthy and continues to improve with each major new film to hit the market and the increasing number of deep catalog classics.

Here's hoping we don't have to wait too long for some of our very favorite films to get the 4K treatment they deserve! We're chomping at the bit for Indiana Jones, the original Star Wars films, classic James Bond movies, more Kubrick titles, and many other greats that would benefit from the latest and greatest in home video technology.

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